Glen Woodbury Shares Lessons Learned
Future Emergency Management Trends

Glen Woodbury is director of the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security. He leads the center’s commitment to servicing the homeland security priorities of the U.S. departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Defense, as well as local, state, tribal and federal agencies. As the center’s associate director from 2004 to 2007, he worked on the development of executive education workshops, seminars and training for senior state and local officials, as well as military leaders.

Woodbury also serves on the DHS’ Quadrennial Review Advisory Committee. From 1998 through 2004, he served as the director of the Emergency Management Division for Washington state. He also served as president of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), a professional organization that represents all state and territorial emergency management directors.

Question: You were the Washington state emergency management director from 1998 to 2004. What was the biggest lesson you learned in that position?

Actually it’s difficult to distinguish between what I may have learned during my tenure versus what I learned in retrospect in the years since. Regardless, one of the lessons is a key to how success in emergency management is really achieved most of the time. I believe success is not so much a matter of ample resources and the “right” hierarchy or organizational design. Rather, the people, and therefore the agencies that are successful, are the ones that are most effective in collaboration, communication skills and the ability to lead in complex environments. Those are nice buzzwords, but in reality, they are three difficult skills to master at both the individual and organizational levels.

Success in the emergency management field is much more about the people than it is about a structure or organizational chart or even, dare I say it, external grant funding. Relationships are more important than positions. Collaboration is more important than money. And learning how to “lead from where you are” is more important than any well crafted hierarchical chart or multi-volume response plan.

The proof of this can be seen in any organization. Look at your people. Are they all equal in the impacts they make? Do you find some that seem to always exceed expectations and achieve levels of service well beyond the norm? These are the people that emergency management leaders should be identifying, creating and providing great freedom of action and independence. I remember a large number of them working in the Washington state emergency management community while I was director. They did some incredible things when given the liberty to do so. I guess my big lesson was discovering the ways to encourage these individuals and helping others to emulate them.

You’ve had the opportunity to tour the nation and see state and local emergency management programs up close. What do you see being done right, and where can improvements be made?

I have seen things going well at emergency management agencies or communities that place a high priority on thinking strategically, and then resourcing what flows from that effort. In other words, if an agency or community is trying to describe its future worth creating and then organizing to achieve it rather than engaging in endless debates about “how” without knowing the “why,” they have been more successful in the long run. Successful organizations ask these types of questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What are the desired outcomes? What is the environment we’re trying to create? What will the environment look like regardless of what we do or don’t do? What does success look like? Is what we’re doing having a positive impact on the people we’re serving?

The organizations and people that spend time examining these questions are generally the most successful, in my opinion. The next part of that is how these things get done. What are the ways we can achieve those outcomes, those objectives? And then finally, it’s about what resources are needed in terms of people, money, partners, etc.

Public-private partnerships are talked about a lot. What does it take to initiate and sustain those types of partnerships?

The first thing you have to answer is: What is wanted from a public-private partnership? The term “public-private partnership” has been an interesting government catchphrase for some time. At least as long as I’ve been involved in or observing emergency management, I’ve heard colleagues say things like, “We want to establish/maintain/strengthen our public-private partnerships.” What do they mean? Do they know what they are trying to achieve when they make these claims? Some probably do, but overall, I bet we are unclear.

As far as emergency management is concerned, there may be opportunities where one sector will aid or contribute to the objectives of the other. Sometimes actions of one will conflict or impede the other’s goals. So what do you do with that?

Maybe where common goals are recognizable, efforts are generally easy. But you still must work to find the commonalities. Where desirable outcomes are symbiotic — or support each other independently — much of the effort is done individually by each sector, but with some monitoring and discussion to see if there are areas for coordination or synchronization. Leadership, collaboration and, most importantly, communication, are needed when the desired outcomes of one sector conflict with those of the other. This is the box where frank conversations are, or should be, held and tough decisions are made by both sides.

So what would success look like if we had great public-private partnerships? If we don’t know the answer, stop trying to justify sustainment opportunities just to keep a tired, old slogan alive. But if we do have a good and worthy response to that question, consider at least the three potential relationships listed above — common, symbiotic and opposing — and how each of those might be treated and at what levels of effort.

You’ve met with many metropolitan areas in the nation as you conducted executive education seminars. What’s your advice to emergency managers for working with elected and senior-appointed officials based on what you’ve learned?

How people talk about emergency management has changed quite a bit over the past 10 years. The profession at the end the 20th century was often only a topic of public and executive discussion when it was overwhelmed by a specific and localized event. From Y2K preparations on, however, the role and criticality of emergency management became recognized as central components of the nation’s security and safety posture. This change in emphasis and recognition occurred relatively rapidly, created turmoil and opportunity for the profession, and took place at all levels of government, as well as in the private sector in varying degrees.

This change in professional context also changed the conversations and relationships between emergency managers and the senior officials they work with and for. Emergency managers are more seriously recognized for the function they serve in terms of public health and safety, therefore the expectations have risen as well. Senior-appointed and elected officials are looking for professional, candid and fact-based advice delivered objectively and clearly. They are looking for and expecting levels of proficiency and professional competence that are often observed in their police, fire and military counterparts. Based on observations from our executive education seminars, I would advise emergency managers to be open, candid and honest, but also to avoid hazard hyperbole and implicit threats for failing to heed their advice. I believe the days are gone when emergency managers felt the need to exaggerate or discuss worst-case consequences just to get a fair hearing. Also, they should not be intimidated by this new and elevated role. Emergency management leaders have as much influence on the health, safety and security of their citizens as any of their professional partners; it’s OK to act like it. But they need to be sure their words are backed up by performance.

What are some trends you see coming in the future of emergency management?

The trends I see include a continuing move toward the professionalization of emergency management. Professionalization, as I interpret it, means that there are accepted standards, a knowledge base, and educational and training opportunities — more than we have now or maybe at least more coordinated. I know that FEMA, NEMA and the International Association of Emergency Managers are all currently accelerating their efforts in these areas.

I also think emergency management is evolving more into a network type of system or organization rather than the hierarchical heavy structure that we have now. When I say hierarchy, I’m talking about a pseudo-military type response structure in which the local level gets exhausted, it goes to state level, and the state level goes to the federal level. I think we have already begun to evolve into a more networked approach so that when some entity has a gap or capacity that needs to be filled, it won’t necessarily be from the bottom up — it may be from the side or the private sector. It will be more of a network where links and nodes are established, where you can see where strengths and weaknesses are. The system may respond from the side, or vertically, rather than horizontally.

Another trend is that emergency management is becoming more youthful. Emergency management has customarily been a gathering of people from other disciplines, especially the military, fire and police services, who have retired from those services and are looking for their second career. Because of educational programs, greater interest and the awareness of a way to serve the public, emergency management is going to attract younger people. Because of the advantages of using Web 2.0 (and beyond) technologies and other advances, emergency management will need to attract younger people who actually know how these things work. That is a great thing. Generational diversity in emergency management is going to make it stronger.

How do you think the influx of new emergency managers who are graduates of college and university emergency management programs will change the discipline in the future?

First of all, it will advance the professionalization of the discipline. Undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral education programs are critical to the basic infrastructure of most professions that we recognize and value. Frankly without an educational underpinning to the next evolution of emergency management, the discipline will continue to be a profession predominantly populated by second careerists, or those having already finished one public safety tenure but still want to dedicate their time to public service and public safety. This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of all the individuals who dedicate their second careers to emergency management, but more an argument that the profession would be healthier and more innovative with an infusion of employees who are starting their professional careers in emergency management, not ending them there.

Our latest generations learn differently, communicate exponentially and create solutions in nontraditional ways. The fact that they are coming from institutions that actually study the activity of emergency management will create a myriad of fascinating and productive debates and interactions in emergency management offices around the country. Emergency management has sorely missed the healthy “college boy” versus “old timer” arguments that have energized and generated thought and knowledge in so many other professions.

Finally, institutions of higher learning are as much about the creation of knowledge as they are the sharing of it. Who’s to say that the evolution of the emergency management doctrine so far has gotten it right? Have we even evolved a doctrine yet? Undergraduate and especially graduate-level study, much like we attempt to do at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, are designed to test and rebut conventional thinking, argue about policies and strategies, and generate individuals who can create, articulate and advance a position objectively, yet passionately. Let the creative disruption begin.
By: Eric Holdeman / Emergency Management


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